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Roundtable: Jail deaths approach a record high weeks before Sheriff election

 September 16, 2022 at 12:00 PM PDT

S1: San Diego is on the verge of having its deadliest year yet inside of local jails , surpassed only by last year. So what's going on behind the scenes ? And when voters choose a new sheriff , will anything change ? I'm Matt Hoffman , and that's our topic This Week on KPBS roundtable. Hello and welcome to KPBS Roundtable. I'm Matt Hoffman. Back in May , this show focused on the problem of in-custody deaths at San Diego County jails. And during the summer , we've seen this trend continue. In many cases , these are people in the early stages of the legal process , often unable to post bail and not yet convicted of any crimes , let alone sentenced. The investigative reporting team at the San Diego Union-Tribune of Jeff McDonald and Kelly Davis , they've been committed not just to telling the stories of those individuals , but the system that creates these conditions that often lead to these deaths. Both Jeff and Kelly are back on roundtable , and they're our guest this week. I want to welcome you guys here. Kelly , the first question is going to go to you. Just this week , we got word of another death in the county. This time it was a person held at the George Bailey Detention Center. That's over in Otay Mesa.

S2: There's there's just been a press release that , you know , came out with the , you know , barebones information that said that the decedent was a 56 year old man. But the sheriff's department is is withholding information until they can notify the gentleman's next of kin. We don't know what a preliminary autopsy showed. We don't know what they suspect happened. And it'll take you know , it'll take a year or at least a year before the medical examiner completes the autopsy. And so it'll be , you know , that long , a year or so before we really know details about the death and how this person died.

S1: Your colleague Jeff McDonald is also here with us. And you both have a recent story that goes deep into the staffing issues that are all the part of this unsafe situation inside of local jails. And we'll get to that in a bit. But first , Jeff , can you actually , like , let us know , you know , how many of these deaths that we've seen so far this year ? And it sounds like the we're actually close to setting a new record here.

S3: Yes , it's very sad. The death this week was the 17th detainee to die in sheriff's custody , although that does include one man who died shortly after being released by the department. So technically at 16. But the sheriff's department has a history of releasing people in their last throes of of illness right before they die. So it's 17 , which is just one short of 20 , 21 total was. So it would take two more deaths this year to set a new record. And I should say last year was a record year for the department as far as in-custody deaths. So it's it's a pretty sad and continuingly sad situation.

S1: And we know that you guys have both been digging into this. And Kelly , your team actually got some staffing records for the local jails. When you dive into that.

S2: And we found instances where a nurse would be juggling multiple critical assignments like this person , you know , a nurse would have to oversee the psychiatric security unit and oversee the medical observation unit. And those two units housed the most vulnerable people in the jails. We also found nurses who were working back to back to back shifts , you know , 12 hour shifts , 12 days straight. I think I found one who worked six days straight and they're working like 60 days , 72 hours a week. And up until recently , a lot of that was mandatory overtime.

S1: So it sounds like that they're a little bit understaffed and the existing staff is being worked extra hard.

S2: Existing staff is being called in to to fill these these gaps in care.

S1: And we know that when a situation like this happens , these in-custody deaths , we usually get a press release from the sheriff's department. But I'm curious and this question goes to both of you. And , Jeff , we can start with you here first. How informative are those announcements ? And do you find any challenges in trying to get more details ? Yes.

S3: Tons of challenges. The material that's initially released by the department is absolutely minimal. They don't provide names , and it can take days or weeks to get basic information about the circumstances that led to the death or the circumstances even that led to the crime that led to the incarceration. So that's a big problem. Once we do identify the inmates can sometimes reach family members to tell us a little more about the man or woman who died in custody , and that's been pretty helpful. But this department has a long history of withholding key information. Don't forget , until maybe about a year and a half ago , the department didn't even announce the deaths within 24 hours. So the only way we would find out that people were dying behind bars was that we would literally file Public Records Act requests every ten days because the department is required to notify the state within ten days of every in-custody death. So we got in the habit of filing new Public Records Act requests every ten days. And we did that for , what , two plus years , I think. So they finally changed their policy and now they're announcing them within 24 hours. But the material they announce is woefully lacking in detail.

S1: And Kelly , what about you ? Have you had similar experiences ? Yeah.

S2: So so , you know , people in San Diego have been following what's happening in Riker's Island because Rikers Island , the New York jail system , has had fewer deaths so far this year than San Diego. But what I've seen in these stories being reported out of out of New York is they're getting a lot more detail on each person who died. They could get incident reports. They can get video footage. So so they're able to tell the stories of each person who died and identify if there was a lapse in care or a shortcoming in policy. And it's just stunning to me that they've got everyone's names , ages , situation , you know , circumstances surrounding surrounding the death. And for a lot of people , we don't even know their names.

S3: Well , it's worse than that. Actually , in San Diego County , there's no outrage. These deaths in New York make the papers every time. And there's outrage by public officials , both the city officials , the state officials. People get really angry when these people die in custody for reasons that could otherwise be treated on the outside. In San Diego , there's almost none of that. So I don't want to say we're uncaring as a community , but there's certainly not the level of outrage that there is in the East Coast.


S3: Yeah. The New York City officials are up in arms. The mayor's been called to the carpet for these continuing deaths , but the last several mayors in New York. So this is a big issue over there. And I know it's getting more attention here in San Diego , but nothing like what it received in the New York media.

S1: And we know that there was actually another death inside of the George Bailey Detention Center , and that was just last month. Kelly , I know you guys talked about how you have to try to piece together what happened. Have you been able to do that for this second ? Two most recent one. Do we know what happened there ? Yeah.

S2: You know , it's same same as we've , you know , just recently mentioned. It's all we know , a 54 year old incarcerated man who was in medical distress. We don't his name has not been released publicly and the preliminary autopsy results have not been released. We do know that his family was notified weeks ago and this is a case we do plan to look into. But as far as what the public knows , just a 54 year old man , medical distress died at the George Bailey jail. You know , that's about it.

S1: And Jeff , we see these deaths at the women's jail that once Las Colinas over in Santee , also at the central jail downtown.

S3: But yeah , there are more fatalities at Central Jail. And George Bailey , I think mostly because of the population , this has the number of deaths. Almost all of the women in the sheriff's custody are housed at last. And because it's a far lower proportion of the population is incarcerated , people love going. This has some deaths , too. But I'd say the biggest facilities that see the most deaths are certainly central jail , which is the main intake facility some exist. And then George Bailey.

S1: Not all of these deaths are linked to drugs , but many of them are. Last month , the San Diego County Board of Supervisors passed an emergency measure to try to get to the bottom of drugs , making it into jails. Here's some of what interim Sheriff Anthony Rey had to tell supervisors back on August 16th.

S4: We investigate every allegation of someone bringing narcotics into the jail , and we've had those allegations. But over the last five years , we've had absolutely no no proof , no concrete evidence , no no cases sustained of anybody bringing narcotics in. So we're focusing the resources we have right now on where we know that drugs are coming in. And there's two major ways. One is through the mail and we have scanning and search procedures there. And the other is through body portage or carrying it through body cavities into the jail. And that's where the scanner will help us tremendously. We know that's where the narcotics are coming in. So that's we're putting all of our efforts right now. But we're open to the idea in the future of possibly coming up with a way to search our folks. We'll have to work with our INS. We'll have to look at the logistics.

S1: Again , that's a portion of San Diego County Interim Sheriff Anthony Ray talking during the county board of Supervisors meeting last month. And Kelly , want your reaction here. And Jeff , feel free to weigh in as well. But what's your response to what he's saying ? You know , he's saying that , you know , staff are not bringing drugs into jail , but we know that they're also not checking that. Yeah.

S2: Yeah. And honestly , this is something I've been looking into. I've talked to so many people about this , including incarcerated people. And we've so far found no evidence that that staff are bringing in drugs. You know , what usually happens is arrestees smuggle drugs in via body cavity and mail as well. And I guess occasionally someone if it's a jail with a with an outdoor space , people might try to toss a package over the fence into the yard. But yeah , if anyone's aware has heard of staff bringing drugs into jail , you know , please shoot me an email. But it's definitely something we've we've been looking into and I agree with with Sergeant Ray , there's there's just no evidence that stuff's contributing to this problem. And and everyone that who has died from a drug overdose , they've they've usually tracked it down to who's brought it in. Some people have been prosecuted for for bringing the drugs into jail that have caused deaths.


S3: I don't think that San Diego County is any different than any other lockup facility in that regard. So I'm leery of dismissing that outright. Although Kelly's right and the sheriffs right , we don't have any specific evidence. This is just stuff I've heard over the months and years , I think , examining the situation. But of course , some of the contraband gets to come from the staff.

S1: And we know that there have been some additional changes , even if they're on an emergency basis in response to these deaths.

S2: And it's a potentially life saving overdose reversal drug. And back in July , I think a group of incarcerated folks saved someone's life. They noticed the guy was overdosing. They went , ran , grab the two doses of naloxone and administered it to this gentleman and and saved his life. So I think that's been a a positive a positive change and a certainly , you know , a great outcome.

S1: And have you heard from any of those calling for reform that adding things in , like putting , you know , this naloxone in everywhere is almost like admitting that they can't , you know , stop the issue of bringing drugs into jail.

S2: I you know , I think they they. Yes , short answer. Yes. I think they've admitted that. It's just it's just something that's it's really difficult to to stop. But hopefully , with these new body scanners that they're supposed to be getting , that the board of supervisors has told them to purchase. Hopefully those scanners will be much better. At detecting any drugs that are being smuggled in.

S3: I would I would note that the Narcan wasn't put into these units for several years after the thousands of doses were donated by a local charity to the sheriff's department. And those those doses went to waste because the sheriff's department did not implement them before they expired. So it's only been a recent commitment on the sheriff's department. Part two. To make this medicine available , this lifesaving medicine available to both the incarcerated people and the staff.

S2: Yeah , definitely had to hit a crisis or crisis point.

S1: And Jeff , we know that there's plenty of people in San Diego who may not be sympathetic to those who are in jail. You know , you talked about earlier , where's the outrage ? But when people die , especially under questionable circumstances , money does become an issue eventually. What does this cost taxpayers ? You know , when lawsuits and settlements follow after these mysterious deaths.

S3: Millions and millions of dollars it cost taxpayers. San Diego County is self-insured , so the money comes straight out of the general fund , which could be used for libraries and streets and firefighting and more sheriff's deputies. So it's a huge issue. We haven't tallied it up lately , but if you include all the excessive force judgments and jury awards that the fatalities and other cases of sheriff's department misconduct , it's it's at least $20 million in recent years that's come straight out of the general Treasury Department. Jury awards and and legal settlements. The thing we usually hear and this is sad is it. And we try and point out in the stories that most of the population in jail hasn't been detected of any crime or I shouldn't say any crime , but the crime for which they're being incarcerated , instead , they're folks that can't make bail. And so , you know , sometimes we hear or you see comments at the bottom of the stories , well , if you can't do the time , don't do the crime. Well , the fact is , these guys haven't been convicted in the vast majority of cases , something like 80 or 90%. So it's it's a little insensitive to say that these people , you know , deserve what they get , which is basically what the implication is from some of these critics. But , yeah , across the county , millions of dollars in not just awards , but the legal fees and the lawyers trying to litigate these cases. So it's a big it's a big expense.

S1: And Kelli , in some of your recent reporting , it includes the story of Jennifer Alonzo. She's a mental health clinician for the jail system who actually ended up quitting due to the workload. What did she tell you about that ? There's a lack of support or even respect from the sheriff's department for the work that they do.

S2: Jennifer , this is from a declaration she provided for a lawsuit. She described being responsible for up to 160 patients at a time. She talked about when her clinical decisions were overruled by by deputies. That's a complaint we hear often that deputies will undermine decisions made by medical or mental health staff and really stood out to me were her descriptions of conditions. She worked in the central jail and she she described it as as filthy and inhumane. Here's a direct quote from her. My patients were subjected to terrible conditions and put at risk of great harm every day , and I felt powerless to give them the care they need and deserve. It was really quite , quite jarring.

S1: And Kelly , you mentioned that she's now part of a class action lawsuit.

S2: Improved mental health care , better treatment for drug addiction , better conditions for people with physical disabilities , better screening to ensure that drugs aren't getting into jails. Those are just a few of the things. And this lawsuit , what makes it so powerful is they've obtained declarations from dozens of people who either are currently incarcerated in the jails or were recently incarcerated in the jails. And these these declarations are very powerful. Their descriptions are incredibly troubling. You know what some people have to go through to get seen by a mental health clinician , by a psychiatrist , by a medical doctor ? It's it's just I wish everyone could read these these declarations because they're quite disturbing.

S1: You're listening to KPBS Roundtable. I'm your host , Matt Hoffman. And our guests this week are Kelly Davis and Jeff McDonald , both reporters from the San Diego Union-Tribune. Now , both of you can weigh in on this one as all of this is happening in the background , we have an election for sheriff happening literally in less than two months. Are either of the candidates saying much about this issue of jail deaths ? And we know one of them comes from the department. But Kelly , we'll go to you here first.

S2: It's Kelly Martinez and John Hamelin. Kelly Martinez is currently the undersheriff. Correct me if I'm wrong , Jeff. Yeah , Undersheriff. She was interim sheriff for a bit , but now Anthony Ray's interim sheriff , John Hamelin is a former head prosecutor with the San Diego City Attorney's Office. He resigned back in June , I believe , after making some comments that weren't taken. Well , about transgender folks. So so they're being asked about it. They're talking about it. One thing I haven't seen is a clear plan from either candidate on how they're going to address jail deaths. So they just say that they are going to reduce deaths. But it would be I think voters would like to see a clear step by step plan.


S3: People keep dying in custody and and it's costing the county a lot of money. So certainly it's a priority. What concerns me is we get the same response from the department almost every time somebody dies in custody. One death is too many. We're working to improve our conditions. They've been saying that for years. And to their credit and to the Board of Supervisors credit , they have spent more money and dedicated more money to try and resolve this problem. But it's simply not translating to any kind of fix. And so what concerns me is that they haven't implemented recommendations that outside experts have repeatedly told them to be doing , and that includes hiring more people and holding people to account when they violate sheriff's department policies and procedures. And , you know , that's what we don't see. And some of that's because these folks are protected because of their confidentiality benefits that the union negotiates on their behalf. But we just don't see people being held to account when they do violate policies that lead to inmates being , you know , maltreated or or dying more often than when we started our first project. It was one a month going back ten years , and this year we have 17. Last year we had 18. So we're talking every few weeks. It's a it's an ongoing thing. And we had one month just this summer. Five inmates died in July. It's just it's just wrenching.

S1: And so both candidates say that they want to fix this issue. But what if it doesn't improve or it gets worse under the next sheriff ? What happens then ? Like , could we see the state or maybe even the federal government get involved here ? And either of you can weigh in on this.

S3: Well , we could certainly see that. In fact , some some critics have been calling for that for some months. Other jail systems around California and the country have certainly been the subject of takeovers or consent decrees or , you know , overseers to force change on a department that's been unwilling to change. That's been called for here by a number of activists , but it's never really gained any traction. So we'll have to see what happens.

S2: And the folks behind the class action lawsuit , Erin Fisher , he's one of the attorneys who is kind of taking the lead on this. He's been involved in legal settlements with other jail systems where as part of the settlement , they're required to make certain changes. So so that that lawsuit , which is making its way through the process , that could end up having a real impact on , you know , forcing changes to be made. But it also could take months , if not years , for that to be resolved.

S1: And we know that some work is happening elsewhere to address this situation. Just a couple of weeks ago , the state legislature passed the Saving Lives in Custody Act. It was from La mesa Assemblywoman , Dr. Akilah Weber.

S2: So what it would do would be it would require that people be screened by a qualified mental health care provider during the booking process to really identify folks with serious mental illness and hopefully get them into treatment as soon as possible. It requires that correctional officers receive at least 4 hours of mental and behavioral health training each year , and that jail staff who provide health care and mental health services receive 12 hours of continuing education training each year. And the bill also requires that the Board of State and Community Corrections , which is like an independent agency that set standards for detention facilities. The law would add a licensed health care provider and a licensed mental health care provider as board members. So currently the majority of the board right now are prosecutors and sheriffs. And so adding those voices , experts in correctional health care and mental health care , I think would be really significant.

S1: As we wrap up here , what can we look forward moving ahead in your guys's coverage , we know that the San Diego County supervisors , they're spending more money. Those body cavity searches , machines , those are going to be implemented.

S3: But we have a. A list of several items that we that we've been targeting. And now we'll we'll be rolling them out over the coming weeks and months. You know , it's sad , but there's no shortage of issues within not just the jails , but within the sheriff's department itself. So , you know , we appreciate them bearing with us and responding to our pesky questions. But , you know , we're trying to do our job to hold the agency accountable and improve practices so that fewer people die and fewer people are heard.


S2: It's due to serious mental illness. And hopefully the more we tell those stories , you know , we'll see. We'll see changes. We'll see improvements.

S1: We're going to have to lead the discussion there. I want to thank you all so much , Kelly Davis and Jeff McDonald , both from the San Diego Union-Tribune. And we know that you guys are both going to continue to investigate these very important stories. And as we get closer to the election , please check out the KPBS Voter Hub. It's available in both English and Spanish at Thanks so much for joining us. You can listen to the KPBS roundtable show any time as a podcast. Our producer is Ben Lacey , and our technical director is Rebecca Chacon. I met Hoffman. Thanks so much. We'll be back with you all next week.

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Cheryl Canson founder of Treat M.I.; Don’t Mistreat M.I. stands in front of the courthouse in San Diego with social justice advocates to demand change in San Diego County jails.
Cheryl Canson founder of Treat M.I.; Don’t Mistreat M.I. stands in front of the courthouse in San Diego with social justice advocates to demand change in San Diego County jails.
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department announced another in-custody death this week of a man held at a jail in Otay Mesa. It's one of more than a dozen similar deaths this year as the law enforcement agency overseeing local jails awaits a change in leadership.

KPBS Roundtable host Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion on the surge of in-custody deaths at jails across San Diego county in 2022 and the systemic health and safety issues that advocates say need to be addressed by the sheriff's department. Guests include San Diego Union-Tribune reporters Jeff McDonald and Kelly Davis, who have both spent years investigating the stories of those who have died and the response by law enforcement.